That Wasn’t Twain: How a Misquotation Is Born
How fitting that the man often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” most likely did not invent the phrase.
Commonly attributed to Mark Twain, that quotation instead appears to be a descendant of a line published centuries ago by satirist Jonathan Swift. Variants emerged and mutated over time until a modern version of the saying was popularized by a Victorian-era preacher, according to Gregory F. Sullivan, a researcher who, like Twain, prefers a pseudonym.
Seven years ago, under the alias Garson O’Toole, Sullivan started Quote Investigator — a popular website where he traces the origins of well-known sayings. This month, also as O’Toole, he published “Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations,” a book in which he collected and updated many of the posts from his site and offers new theories on how misquotations form.
“When I started off, it was mysterious exactly where these misquotations were coming from, and it was interesting that sometimes you could find these clues that pointed to how they may have originated,” said Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department who now spends his time writing.
In the book, Sullivan offers 10 common “mechanisms” that he says lead to misquotation and incorrect attribution.
Through one such process, which he labels “textual proximity,” a famous person mistakenly gets credit for a quotation merely by having their name or likeness published close to the words. In another, “ventriloquy,” a statement about an individual’s work is perceived to be so apt that it is eventually confused for their own words.
Both may explain how Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer, became associated with the saying: “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out,” as outlined on Sullivan’s website and, now, in his book. In May 2013, Sullivan heard from a reader who, after a fruitless attempt to prove Chekhov’s authorship of those words, wanted help uncovering the true history of the quotation.
Sullivan accepted the challenge.
Google Books led him to “The Tradition of the Theatre,” a textbook published in 1971 and edited by Peter Bauland and William Ingram. Only snippets were available online, so he visited a university library to review the book in full.